1994

Film #377: Quiz Show (1994)

Next is the only film in our Ralph Fiennes trilogy for which the actor didn’t receive an Oscar nod that being Robert Redford’s Quiz Show. However the film did showcase his versatility as his portrayal of the intelligent Charles Van Doren is a million miles away from the brutish Goeth.


Van Doren is a man who is won over by the trappings of fame after becoming a contestant on the iconic 1950s quiz show Twenty One. Van Doren is chosen as the new regular competitor on the programme to replace the nervy Herb Stampel whose popularity is waning in the eyes of the public. Right from the start of the film it’s made clear that the quiz show is being controlled by the head of the NBC Network and by the programme’s sponsor, a supplementary gel called Geritol. As Herb is no longer a ratings draw, Twenty One’s producer Dan Enright convinces Herb to lose the next programme to Van Doren. Here it’s revealed that the producers have been feeding Herb the answers to the questions and continue to rig the quiz by giving Van Doren questions he knows the answers to. These methods completely go against the way the show is viewed by the American public who believe that Twenty One’s question are kept in a bank vault. Soon enough Van Doren becomes adored by the public whilst Herb tries to get revenge by exposing the corruption behind Twenty One. Newly graduated lawyer Dick Goodwin takes it upon himself to investigate the scandal and soon finds it tough to know who to believe. As with the rest of the population, Goodwin is charmed by Van Doren and finds Herb to be a volatile personality. But Goodwin soon finds the evidence he needs and hopes to expose the corruption in both NBC and sponsors Geritol. But Redford’s final message is that the corporations themselves never pay and instead it’s the little people who suffer. Both Van Doren and Herb lose the public’s respect as a result of the scandal whilst Enright and host Jack Benny are soon making their fortunes from television once again.

I knew very little about Quiz Show before watching it and I think that aided my enjoyment of the film. From the opening credits which play over a stylised version of the 1950s you know you’re watching a classy film. Robert Redford’s direction isn’t incredibly original but he helps capture the fast-talking style of all of his characters and makes you care about the three central protagonists. Indeed this is a film about a trio of men; the impressionable Van Doren, the bland Herb and the ambitious Dick all of whom are corrupted by the quiz show scandal in different ways. As Dick, Rob Morrow is every inch the slick junior lawyer as he attempts to gain notoriety due to his part in uncovering the corruption at NBC. John Turturro is fantastic as Herb, a man who has a little charisma and who is visibly hurt by his rejection from Enright. Turturro especially excels at portraying Herb’s volatile nature and how much it hurts him to get a certain question wrong. I personally felt that Ralph Fiennes put in a fine turn here as Van Doren, an intelligent man but somebody who is swallowed up the hype surrounding his Twenty One appearances. Fiennes demonstrates his charisma throughout the piece and his final speech to congress his delivered excellently. Fiennes has brilliant chemistry with Paul Scofield, the only nominated member of the cast, who plays his renowned poet father Mark. Scofield’s performance makes up only part of a great supporting cast that includes David Paymer, Christopher McDonald and Martin Scorsese as a Geritol representative. The real star here is Paul Attanasio, who was Oscar-nominated for his fantastically well-paced and snappy adapted screenplay. Attanasio’s screenplay launches attacks on well-known brands and lets us know that they don’t care who they sacrifice along the way as long as the money keeps coming in. Ultimately Quiz Show is an easy-to-watch film with fine performances and a great screenplay which has an identifiable message behind it.

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